The only western account of the Empress Dowager’s death ritual – despite some casual notes by members of the diplomatic body – was provided by the London Times correspondent G. E. Morrison, who gave a detailed eye-witness description of the funeral procession in 1909.
Photography was forbidden, this group of twelve silver prints come from the circle of Theophile Piry, and could be attributed to this diplomat and master of the Imperial Post Office, a known amateur photographer. The composition and general aspect of the twelve pictures confirm the hypothesis of unofficial unauthorized snapshots of the Emperor Guangxu’s funeral procession in May 1909.
Elaborate details on imperial death rituals during the Qing were presented in the Collected Statutes and Precedente and in the Collected rituals of the dynasty…
Born in the year 1835, the later Empress Dowager Cixi was selected as a low- ranking imperial concubine in 1851.
By her death the Manchu rule over China was greatly weakened: Cixi died on November 15, 1908, less than one day after the demise of the Emperor Guangxu, a coincidence which gave rise to countless rumors about the causes of death of the late Majesties.
Yun Yuding, a court officiai, recorded the Empress Dowager’s famous words ”I cannot die before him” (the Emperor) supporting the rumor that the Emperor had died at the hands of the Empress Dowager – Now proved by DNA.
… In Confucian state ideology, ritual, the performance of rites and roles, was conceived of as essential background of order and unity. Rituals explicitly differentiated the social relations. The correct performance of the prescribed rites functioned as a means to order the family structure, to stabilize the social hierarchy, to consolidate the state, and thus to prevent all these organizations from disorder.
Death ritual, in particular, was an elaboration of filiality, the central Confucian value within the family relations, and thus a means to prevent disorder after the death of a family member had struck the hierarchical order of the family. In the performance of the death rites the family structure was maintained, the position of each living member defined.
The elaborate death ritual at court had a similar stabilizing function and was of great importance to the imperial chief mourner, the heir to the throne. The new emperor had to perform the death rites in filial respect for his predecessor and thus served as an ideal model affirming the basic value of filial piety within family and state. Through the performance of the death ritual he simultaneously reinforced the legitimacy of his reign and symbolically strengthened his own position.
The washing, clothing and encoffining of the corpse as well as placing the coffin in a palace of the Forbidden City were the first steps of the standard ritual sequence…
Since the intervals between the encoffining ceremony and the final placement in the imperial cemetery varied in length and thus could be extremely long, it was common in Qing times to transfer the imperial coffin after the first ceremonies to a hall on Coal Hill, the Shouhuang Dian or the Guande Dian, where about 50 coats of lacquer would be applied to the coffin. The obligatory daily libations and the special sacrifices were continued in front of the coffin until the final removal to the cemetery.
Along with the public notification of death there were also issued the mourning regulations, which were fundamentally the same as those in case of a late emperor, differing only in the length of application.
Within these general comments only one of those regulations need be mentioned in detail to point out the striking significance of Cixi’s mourning regulations and the alterations connected therewith: While at the demise of an emperor it was common to use the blue seal instead of the official red one during a hundred-days’ period, in case of a late empress the use of the blue ink could not extend beyond twenty-seven days…
The last dynastic death ritual at the Qing court in accordance with the Collected Statutes was the funeral of her late Majesty, the Empress Dowager Cixi. Though at the very beginning of the various preparations the ritual prescriptions corresponded to the precedents contained in the statutes, the regulations were altered later to make the Empress Dowager’s funeral an unprecedented event.
Another fact created an unprecedented problem to those who were in charge of organizing the death ritual: Never during Qing times, had there occured two imperial deaths so close together, so that the officiate in charge had to memorialize simultaneous ceremonies.
According to an officiai announcement, the Empress Dowager Cixi died on November 15, 1908, at the hour of the sheep (1-3 pm). She died in the Yiluan Dian at the Xiyuan west to the Imperial Palace. A blackly shining pearl was put into her mouth which – as the tradition goes – was supposed to retard decomposition, so that the soul of the dead on its way to return might find an intact body for revival.
After the washing and clothing of the corpse, on the same day, the remains of the late Empress Dowager were brought to the Imperial Palace for the death rites. The day after, at the hour of the dragon (7-9 am), the corpse was placed in a doublé coffin, of “Gold Thread Fragrant Cedar Wood“, jinsi nannui, a special sort of wood from Yunnan province which was known for its imperishable nature and its pleasant smell.
A detailed description of the clothing of the corpse, of the jewels and treasures enclosed in the coffin was provided by the devote eunuque Li Lianying. The value of all these precious objects was estimated at about 50 million silver taels, not including the personal presents of princes and high dignitaries, of princesses and ladies at court.
The coffin was placed in the throne hall of the Ningshou Gong, the Huangji Dian, where the throne had been removed from for that very purpose; the coffin of the late Emperor Guangxu, who had died a day before the demise of the Empress Dowager, had been placed in the Qianqing Gong; both procedures following precedence…
The mourning regulations for the late Empress Dowager were first proposed in accordance to precedence: At court, primary mourning, the period of most intense mourning, had to be observed for twenty-seven days; during these days, the officiai red seal had to be replaced by a blue one.
More strict were the regulations for members of the faintly of the late Empress Dowager, for the Prince Regent himself as chief mourner acting for the three-year-old Emperor, also for those responsible for the death rites and some higher officials who were listed explicitly – they had to observe primary mourning for a hundred days. After the primary mourning, secondary mourning, the requirements of which were not as strict as those for primary mourning, had to be observed for the following twenty-seven months, as usual.
The period of public mourning throughout the empire was a hundred days during which all commoners were forbidden to shave their heads. Places of entertainment were closed, music was forbidden. There was a one-month ban on marriage.
As for the members of the imperial family, there was a twenty-seven-months’ ban on marriage; members of collateral branches and high Manchu and Chinese officials, to the third rank had to observe a one-year’s ban on marriage, other festivities and music were banned for twenty-seven months.
Manchu and Chinese officials from the fourth rank down to the lowest were allowed to arrange marriages after a period of hundred days, festivities and music were banned for one year. As to the members of the Eight Banners in the capital and to the officials in the provinces, marriages, other festivities and music were interdicted for hundred days.
While during the period of primary mourning the princes and officials at court had to assemble three times a day before the libational altar, after the transfer of the coffin in a hall on Goal Hill only once a day, the princesses and ladies at court assembled three times a day during three days and then only once until the celebration of the “First Sacrifice“, echuji. During the twenty-seven-days’ primary mourning the princes and officials lodged in their Yamen and practiced dietary and sexual abstinence.
To prevent disorder or unrest the high officials of the provinces were requested to refrain from personal condolences in front of the imperial coffin.
So far, the proposed regulations of the ritual ceremonies for the late Empress Dowager were according to the dynastic statutes and submitted to the Throne immediately after the death of her Majesty.The proposed regulations corresponded exactly to preceding empress dowagers’ rites as they were practiced e.g. at these demise of the Empress Dowager Cian in 1881.
Only a few days after the initial proposal of mourning regulations, an imperial decree was issued ordering a special alteration of the mourning rituals in honor of the late Empress Dowager who – over a period of more than forty years – had handled state affairs.
Referring to this edict the Board of Rites memorialized thee considerably modified instructions: On signing edicts the blue ink would be used during the whole period of public mourning, that is to say, for a hundred days instead of twenty-seven days according to the former proposal and to precedence; during fifteen days, it was forbidden to transmit memorials to the Throne. There was a ban on ancestor worship during the period of primary mourning. The one- year’s ban on marriage was applied to the Manchu and Chinese officials from the forth rank down to the lowest, too; they were forbidden other festivities and music during the following twenty-seven-months.
All these modified regulations – absolutely unusual in the case of an empress dowager’s demise – were equivalent to those observed in the case of an emperor’s death and thus equal to the ritual prescriptions for the late Emperor Guangxu…
In fact, it would not have made any external difference if the hundred-days’ use of the blue ink for imperial seals or the twenty-seven-days’ ban on ancestor worship were to the honor of the late Emperor or to the honor of the late Empress Dowager. But it is striking enough that statutes established through centuries were broken and the Empress Dowager Cixi officially and explicitly raised to the rank of an emperor through the alteration of the mourning regulations.
During the Qing dynasty it was common to remove the imperiai coffin after a few days from the hall within the Palace to a special building on Coal Hill, which housed the coffin until the final removal to the imperial cemetery. This time there arose a problem, for there were two imperial coffins, the coffin of the late Emperor Guangxu at the biers in the Qianqing Gong and that of the late Empress Dowager Cixi in the Huangji Diau. News spread that after the period of primary mourning the coffin of the Emperor would be moved to the Yongsi Dian on Coal Hill, that of the Empress Dowager to the Guande Dian on Coal Hill…
The coffin of the Emperor was placed in the Guande Dian on December 9, 1908; and that of the Empress Dowager remained within the Palace walls in the Huangji Dian.
Entirely unprecedented, her coffin occupied the throne hall of Ningshou Gong for a full year until the funeral procession with the catafalque left the Forbidden City on November 9, 1909.
The interval between encoffining the corpse and the final placement in the Eastern Necropole, Dongling, was characterized by the daily libations in front of the mortuary altar in the Huangji Dian.These libations look place three times a day: in the morning at the hour of the dragon (7-9 am); at noon at the hour of the borse (11 am-1 pm); and in the evening at the hour of the monkey (3-5 pm). The exact time of the libations varied according to the seasonal weather…
While the daily libations were continued during the time that the coffin remained at the biers (which in case of the late Empress Dowager lasted a full year), there were – following the established Qing practice – numerous special sacrifices held at the mortuary altar, on which occasions the mourning dress of primary mourning had to be reassumed. On these occasions, including a libational ceremony, there were burnt possessions of the late Empress Dowager such as clothes, forniture, utensils, and paper imitations of servants, mockmoney, etc. all of which the late Empress Dowager might need in the other world…
While all the libations and sacrifices already mentioned were taking place, the ministries and various boards were kept busy by the preparations for the final ceremonies. The actual preliminary arrangement and precautions in advance started in August 1909. The Imperial Equipage Department memorialized the various routes to the imperial cemetery, since the Prince Regent and the Empress Dowager Longyu would take a separate route to receive the coffin at its next resting-place as prescribed in the Collected Statutes. The Board of Works ordered the streets to be repaired; since the procession would take five days to reach the imperial cemetery, night accommodations for the imperial cortege had to be installed along the route, at Yanxiao, Bairun (Sanhe county), Taohua Sie (Jizhou county), Longfu Si (Zunhua county) and at the Putuoyu Mausoleum.
Three catafalques had to be prepared for the transport of the coffin from the Huangji Dian to the place of its final entombment: a small one à 32 porters, a middle one à 80 porters and a large one à 128 porters, which was held ready at Yanxiao, the first stop and resting place of the imperial procession.
As usual, 7 920 porters were required to do the distance of about 135 km to the Dongling in 60 stages; in addition, another four porters per stage were needed as reserves. These porters had to be recruited out of the districts, the imperial cortege would take its way through, the districts of Daxing, Tongzhou, Sanhe and Zunhua. During the very first stage and the very last stage of the day the coffin had to be born by Official, professional porters, because they knew how the coffin had to be placed and arranged for the ceremonies at the stops.
All these preparations for the late Empress Dowager’s funeral procession were ordinary procedures. From October 24, porters for the coffin-bearing were drillcd outside the gates of the city. Outside the Xizhi Men at the Gaoliang Qiao, troops of the fire-brigade accompanying the funeral procession had to exercise. On October 30, a final rehearsal of the funeral procession was held between Huangji Men and Dongzhi Men.48
A lot of precautions were taken to ensure tranquillity and order within the city, the police were strengthened and even mounted troops were called in.
Additionally, 900 soldiers of the armed police forces were posted along the route of the funeral procession between Donghua Men and Dongzhi Men. As usual for an imperial funeral procession, doors and Windows along the route of the procession had to be closed, but additionally, all the doorways, free places and crossroads were closely guarded by soldiers. These extensive safety measures were commonly attributed to the present Empress Dowager’s Constant fear of assassination.
In accordance with the funeral arrangement for the late Empress Dowager Gian in the year 1881, each of the ministries and boards in the city was allowed to delegate a third of its personal for participation at the procession.
Because of the cold winter weather, the new Emperor was excused from leading the funeral rites and taking part in the procession.
Early in the morning of November 9, 1909, at 3 o’clock, the Prince Regent – acting for the young Emperor – held the ”Libation of Departure“, qidtan; at about 5:15am, the coffin – carefully wrapped in quilts of silk and felt – was moved out of the Huangji Dian in front of which it was mounted onto the middle-sized catafalque.
The solemn procession, led by the Prince Regent, left the Forbidden City through the Ningshou Men, Huangji Men, Yiqing Men and Donghua Men in the dawn of the foggy, cold November day. By Beichizi, Shatan and Di’an Men the procession reached the Drum Tower, where it turned to the cast in order to leave the city by the Dongzhi Men. For a short distance, the foreign representatives went in front of the catafalque. A quite detailed account of that last imperial procession, which is said to have had a length of 5 km, had been transmitted to the western world by the correspondent of the Times, G.E. Morrison.
”… the catafalque was born by 84 bearers – the largest number which could carry this unwieldy burden through the city gates.
Beyond the walls, the coffin was transferred to a larger bier, borne by 120 men. In front walked the Prince-Regent, the Bodyguard of Mauchu Princes, and the members of the Grand Council, attended by the Secretariat Staff. Behind rode first a smart body of troops, followed by a large number of camels, whose Mongol attendants carried tent-poles and other articles for use in the erection of the ’matshed palaces* in which the coffin rests at night at the different stages of the four days journey to the Tombs.
Behind the Mongols were borne in procession the gaudy honorific umbrellas presented to the ’Old Buddha1on the occasion of her return from exile at Ilsianfu in 1901; all these are to be burnt on the 16th inst., when the body is fìnally entombed. Following the waving umbrellas came a body of Lama dignitaries, and after them a contingent from the Imperial Equipage Department, hearing Manchu sacrificial vessels, Buddhist symbols, and embroidered banners.
Conspicuous in the cortege were three splendid chariots with
trappings and curtains of Imperial yellow silk emblazoned with dragons and phoenix, and two palanquins similar to those used by the Empress Dowager in her journeys in state; these also will be burnt at. the Mausoleum.
Noticeably figures in the procession were the six Chief Eunuchs, including the notorious Li Lien-ying and the short handsome attendant who usually accompanied the Empress’s sedan chair. The spectacle, as a whole, was most impressive;… “
At the bridges and gates these imperial procession had to pass, sacrifices were held, the daily libations in front of the coffin were continued even on the way to the cemetery.
As usual, all the local officials in the vicinity of about 50 km assembled along the route at the right side, and while kneeling, awaited the procession for the prescribed mourning wail on the passing of the imperial catafalque.
As has been mentioned above, not all the mourners took part in the procession including the catafalque. The Prince Regent, the Empress Dowager Longyu and all those who had to care for the orderly precautions and ceremonies at the next resting-place went by a separate route to the next stop…
After the last sacrifices had been held as prescribed by the Board of Rites, there came the day of the final entombment, November 16, 1909, one year after the death of the Em- press Dowager. At the hour of the tiger (3-5 am), name-tablet and seal of the late Empress Dowager were placed onto the dais within the Jinxuan Men of the burial chamber.
At the hour of the dragon (7-9 am), the “Treasure Well“, eejinjing, the center of the mausolea of Qing times, was filled with the excavated earth, the so-called Auspicious Earth“, jitu.
It was exactly upon that “Treasure Well“ where the coffin was finally placed at the hour of the snake (9-11 am). The mighty stone doors were closed and sealed. After the dotting of the spirit-tablet by which the late Empress Dowager was incorporated in the group of Imperial Ancestors, and after the very last of all funeral ceremonies at the tomb, the “Sacrifice of Repose eyuji, the spirit-tablet, housing in the ” Yellow Tent“, ehuangwo, returned to Peking.
On November 21, the day of its return to Peking, the spirit-tablet was installed in the Temple of Ancestors, Taimiao, at the hour of the horse (11 am-1 pm). At the same time, the spirit-tablet prepared for the Hall of Ancestor Worship, Feng- xian Dian, was installed in that very hall; at the mausoleum, the third tablet was erected in the sacrificial hall, Long’en Dian.
Three days of abstinence had preceded the installing of the spirit-tablets, sacrifices were held at the most important altars of the city.
So far, the funeral ceremonies would bave been held to the content of the responsive officials, unless there was a scandalizing event resulting in the discharge of the Viceroy of Zhili, Duanfang, the chief official responsible for the late Empress Dowager’s funeral arrangement ”… for allowing subordinate officials to photograph the cortege, also for using trees within the sacred mausoleum inclosure as telegraph poles … “It had been strictly forbidden to take photographs of the funeral ceremonies. Nevertheless, four men were caught taking photos just as the imperial catafalque passed the Long’en Men on its way to the sacrificial hall and two days later, as the catafalque was removed from the sacrificial hall. They declared that Duanfang had asked them to do this job. Though Duanfang replied that the photographers had been strictly forbidden to take photographs of the funeral ceremonies.
Nevertheless, four men were caught taking photos just as the imperial catafalque passed the Long’en Men on its way to the sacrificial hall and two days later, as the catafalque was removed from the sacrificial hall. They declared that Duanfang had asked them to do this job. Though Duanfang replied that the photographing had been caused by machinations of a corrupt officer he was removed from office.
These photographs might have been destroyed afterwards or carefully hidden away. In course of this study, neither the photos nor any hint of what had happened to them could be traced.
Along with the death of the Emperor Guangxu and the Empress Dowager Cixi there look place an up to then unparalleled event: Though since former times, tributary States had send emissaries or special envoys to offer condolences at an emperor’s death and in this sense precedented, this was the first time that all the accredited diplomats were permitted to be present at an officiai ceremony of condolence at the biers of the late Majesties. It was for the first time that representatives of foreign western countries were officially invited to proceed to the Forbidden City for a personal visit of condolence…
A few days before the funeral procession left the Imperial Palace, the foreign diplomats were invited again to bid the late Empress Dowager farewell. On November 6, 1909, at 10 o’clock in the morning, ninety-eight representatives of thirteen nations proceeded to the Huangji Dian to perform a ritual resembling that of November 21, one year before.
As it was a rare and unique chance, the diplomatic body took an eager interest in the possible participation at an imperial funeral procession. By persistent and obstinate notes to the Chinese Foreign Ministry they finally got the consent – though reluctant – of the authorities: Each nation was allowed to delegate special envoys for the funeral procession. As the late Emperor was the first to leave the city for his temporary resting-place at Liangge Zhuang in the Western Necropole, Xiling, it was this funeral procession in May 1909 the diplomatic body had insisted to take part in.
The Emperor Guangxu is told to have refused to select a burial site during his lifetime, as opposed to custom. Thus, at his demise, a group of geomancers had to bc sent to the two imperial cemeteries of the Qing to select an auspicious place for the tomb of the Emperor…
His mausoleum being not yet completed, the late Emperor found a temporary resting-place at Liangge Zhuang. He was finally entombed on Decomber 13, 1913, together with his wife, the empress Xiaoding (1868-1913).
As to the funeral procession to the Dongling in November 1909, the foreign diplomate apparently were less interested to insist upon another troublesome participation in the procession. This time they did not lay much effort into the negotiations, they even emphatically opposed the early hour, 5 o’clock in the morning, at which they were invited to attend the very last rituals in front of the coffin and to escort the catafalque out of the Forbidden City. It would be too dark thence as they argued, for maintaining order, forming the cortege, even for recognizing each other.
So finally, the hour of their participation was changed to 7:30 am. At this time, the foreign representatives assembled at the Beixin Qiao, where they had to await the funeral procession. On the arrival of the catafalque they took their place in front of it and escorted the late Empress Dowager until they left the imperial cortege at the Yuewang Miao. Then they returned to their legations…
The ritual on the death of the Empress Dowager Cixi, basically corresponding with the dynastic statutes, reflected the dominant position of an extraordinary woman at court by the deliberate alterations which, in a certain arrogancy, broke with rules established through centuries. In no aspect did the modified mourning prescriptions differ from those for the late emperor: The use of blue ink, the ban on ancestor worship, the suspension of transmitting memorials to the Throne, the rigorous ban on marriages for high- and low-ranking officials were entirely according to the ritual prescriptions for a late emperor, which were even surpassed by the regulation of the three-times-a-day assemblance for libation during the whole period of primary mourning…
During lifetime, it was Cixi’s anxious concern to set up her authority and to prove the legitimacy thereof, which – of course – was reflected in her position as empress dowager…
But political opponents preferably pointed to her relatively humble origin and insignificant status at the beginning of her career at court, thus questioning thc legitimacy of her imperial power.
The extraordinary death rites were officially explained by the court’s favor- able appraisal of Cixi’s long career. But it seems that her successors had intended to set up a final testimony of her legitimacy and authority in order to demonstrate their own legitimacy.
Rumors held that it was the concern of the Empress Dowager Longyu and the Yehenala clan to have the Prince Regent organize the death ritual on a grander scale, thus symbolically providing another evidence of Cixi’s legitimacy and, in consequence, consolidating the position of the clan…
The extraordinary death ritual at the demise of the Empress Dowager Cixi rooted in her outstanding career during life and simultaneously was an impressive demonstration of the legitimacy of her successors.